One of the top reasons I love teaching is because I get to keep learning. And, I love the opportunity to approach the study of history from new angles. The world history classes I’m teaching this year are organized by theme, instead of by chronology. The goal of the class is to help students see patterns and similarities in human behavior over time. So, for example, last semester we asked the question, “why do humans go to war?” And we looked at a wide variety of situations where war happened. Humans go to war for territory, for prestige, and for control. Oh, and sometimes to avenge their dad.
We started this semester looking at how gender has been interpreted and used at different times in history. Because most of history was written by, and about men, we’ve spent several weeks looking at how women appear in history. We read some of the speech that Hortensia made to the Roman Senate. We examined the art that depicted Queen Elizabeth I, and learned about the power of Queen Ana Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. We read some Mary Wollstonecraft, and then we looked at anti-suffrage propaganda. We learned about foot binding in China, and about Qui Jin who spoke out against it. And then last week, I asked them what they knew about people who didn’t fit that black and white definition of gender. What about people who don’t fit the gender binary?
It’s common to hear people say that the increased press about nonbinary, transgender, and gender non-conforming people is a trend, a fad, a passing obsession. Speaking historically, that is simply not true. Throughout history, and on every continent, cultures have welcomed, embraced, and even worshipped people who do not fit the gender binary. While the terms “transgender” or “gay” are relative newcomers to language, the presence of humans who experience life as both male and female, or as a completely separate gender, has been documented for centuries.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, male priests in the cult of Innana were believed to have become women, as Innana (Queen of Heaven, and goddess of sex, war, and justice) had the power to change a human’s gender. In South Sulawesi in Indonesia, the creation myth of the Bugi includes the presence of two bissu, humans who identified as a meta-gender, and were seen as part human and part deity. The bissu were responsible for the creation of culture and beauty. Polynesian cultures embraced the Māhū. Embodying the best of male and female, these gifted individuals were welcomed in the community and often served in roles as teachers and spiritual leaders.
The presence of two spirit individuals in many Native American communities is well-documented. The term itself was coined in 1990, and is attributed to Elder Myra Laramee,
at the Third Annual Inter-tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference in 1990. In many Native American cultures, gender is related to the work done within the community. A person who can both hunt and create beautiful craftwork is honored as bridging the male and female worlds. These are only a few examples of how people who don’t fit within the gender binary have not only existed but been welcomed and loved over the centuries. Independent Lens, from PBS, published this map of gender-diverse cultures a few years ago. It provides an amazing picture of the variety of accepted gender expressions around the world.
Unfortunately, many of the cultures that embraced non-binary individuals historically were forced to conform to the social and religious strictures of colonizing powers which did not recognize (or were repulsed by) the belief systems of the groups they encountered. In some cases, as in the U.S., laws were passed that criminalized cultural celebrations, including the acceptance of gender non-conforming people. Unions between same-gendered individuals were often not recognized. In North America, the presence of church-run boarding schools served to enforce strict gender expectations. And so, over time, the acceptance of people outside the gender binary declined.
This is important history, and stories that should not be buried or ignored. Gender non-conforming, non-binary, and transgender (and that covers only a few of the terms) people have always existed. We owe it to ourselves (and I owe it to the wide variety of students I teach) to explore the full history of humanity.
Want to learn more? Check out just a few resources on the history of nonbinary, transgender, and gender non-conforming people (and don’t forget to click the link to the map of World Gender Customs from Independent Lens above):